Before anything else, horror director James Wan is a master of depicting possession. Of course, we see this in the prolific Conjuring series, where countless bodies are puppeteered by evil spirits. We also bear witness to it in the Saw franchise, where the sadistic influence of Jigsaw possesses his victims to mutilate themselves or others. The entirety of Wan’s career has pondered what it is exactly about the idea of possession that shakes us to our very cores. Decades after his cinematic debut, Malignant, or, more specifically, the film’s final moments, finally answers that question.
Malignant follows Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis), a young woman who, after being attacked by her abusive husband, becomes regularly consumed by visions of a hooded figure committing grisly murders. It isn’t long before Madison discovers that these aren’t just visions—they’re happening in real life.
For much of Malignant, Wan relies on campy acting and jump scares to keep the solid, if not edging on unimaginative, story happily trodding along, and its viewers with it. He confidently holds back on revealing the film’s true genius until the final act, at which point it unexpectedly mutates into a masterclass of mind-bending, absurdist psychological horror. And yes, we’re going to talk about that twist.
Footage from the hospital Madison was a patient at as a child reveals that she was born with an advanced teratoma. A teratoma is a kind of tumor that can be composed of body parts like teeth and hair and nails, and in Malignant’s case, this one’s grown arms and legs and a mind of its own. Madison’s teratoma, nicknamed “Gabriel,” had begun to take over Madison’s brain and use her body for his evil will. To suppress him, the doctors packaged him neatly back into Madison’s skull, until years later when her husband’s attack reawakened him. Gabriel began to take over his host’s mind once again (think Tyler Durden but a giant tumor, or, for our Harry Potter fans, that moment you realize Voldemort is camping out on the back of Quirrell’s head), unknowingly causing her to commit murders.
So what is it, exactly, that makes Malignant’s twist so terrifying? Perhaps it would serve us best to first answer the question of why Wan’s preoccupation with possession makes him one of the greatest modern horror directors. Of course, the idea of being possessed by a demon (or anything, really) is horrifying in itself. It causes you to lose total control of your body and mind. Since a lack of control is at the root of most fears, it makes sense that possession is one of the most terrifying things imaginable. But throughout his career, Wan has proven intent on digging a little deeper into the subject than that.
Saw (2004) isn’t your average possession film. It doesn’t have any of the classic possession elements: The religion, the exorcism, the inability of the host to control his or her actions. But Wan has managed to push the franchise to the upper echelon of the genre by introducing one thing: The element of choice. When, in the original film, Lawrence (Cary Elwes) saws his own leg off, it’s his choice. And when, in Saw III, Allison’s (Dina Meyer) hand is burned off in a vat of acid, it is she who makes the fatal plunge. And of course, the guy who scoops his own eye out in Saw II technically didn’t have to do that.
But what does this have to do with possession? Well, in the case of the Saw franchise, Jigsaw is the possessor, and his evils lie precisely in the fact that he gives his victims a choice. They can do something horrible to themselves or someone else, or they can just die. That’s the game. And in Jigsaw’s eyes, it is not he who put his victims in their impossible situations, but the victims themselves. Had they not acted cruelly or immorally in some way, they would be safe. He also understands that human instinct functions in such a way that, while there might be an ostensible choice to rescue yourself or others, we will most likely do whatever it takes to save our own skin. In a way, then, the victims possess themselves, and Jigsaw simply aids them in their punishment. And so, in their moment of choice, it is not the guy on the tricycle that’s the real enemy. He simply illuminates the enemy within.
This theme comes full circle—spirals, if you will—in Malignant. At first, Malignant seems like your average, run-of-the-mill horror movie. Bad things keep happening to someone, and she doesn’t know why. But the twist reveals that, in the most technical sense, it is Madison doing it to herself. Her own brain is working against her. When her husband shoves her head against the wall, it merely awakens the monster that was always inside of her, just as Jigsaw’s game simply tests our capacity to bring harm to ourselves and others.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Madison’s particular case is that she is unaware that the possession is even happening. In Wan’s more straightforward films like The Conjuring, the characters and those around them are aware that something sinister is going on. Similarly, in the Saw franchise, characters understand that they are being faced with a choice that is…less than ideal. But Madison spends much of Malignant attempting to solve the mystery of Gabriel’s murder spree, as do those around her. The only thing more terrifying than having a monster inside of you is having a monster inside of you that you never knew was there, or had hidden from yourself. (Who thinks they could actually stick their hand in a vat of acid if it came down to it?)
But is Wan’s view on the matter wholly pessimistic? Or, after decades of exploring this theme, has he finally found a way to break the cycle? His filmography thus far has proven that possession requires a form of self-sacrifice. In the Saw franchise, the sacrifice is a body part or two, or even a life. In his paranormal films like Insidious and The Conjuring, it’s the violent body horror that comes with an exorcism, which reflects a spiritual and moral belief in unseen evil energy. In Malignant, the sacrifice is more complicated: Madison must expel the malignant tumor from her body, which, despite all of its obvious evils, is still her.
But the key element here is that it is Madison’s choice to remove Gabriel from her body and put him somewhere where she can observe and control him. He is not forced out of her by a paranormal investigator or a man with an obsession with morality. She simply chooses to release the inner demon that has been following her her whole life, without the influence of others.
An external, societal moral code is a key component of Wan films, one which Malignant trades for an internal moral code. Where the Saw franchise is ultimately about who has the power to judge others (whether it’s Jigsaw or the police or victims who are given the choice to harm their peers), and the Conjuring franchise is about religion—a level of judgment and morality that simply cannot be competed with—Malignant suggests that the only worthy kind of judgment is an internal judgment. While Malignant’s possession is the most horrifying of Wan’s creations, its exorcism also turns out to be the most cathartic.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.